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Healthcare innovation, not data theft

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For years now, industry goliaths have investigated how disruptive technology will shape the healthcare industry of the future. The Internet of Things has played a vital role in this quest, as the ability to connect to the internet from any smart device has seen the exponential growth of wearable health gadgets.

Last week, Google announced it will be launching an app in partnership with the NHS to monitor for symptoms of kidney failure, which costs the lives of 40,000 every year in the UK alone. This deal will see Google gain access to the medical records of more than 1.6 million patients in the UK, including names, addresses and sensitive test results. However, despite the obvious positives to this technology, many are outraged that no form of consent was sought before the deal was put into action and they have not been told how to opt out of the study.

Of course, people will always be wary of their medical data being shared with third parties and this is part of the problem. News of the NHS / Google partnership was broken online by numerous media publications, rather than patients being told in advance. Instead of the clear benefits of sharing data records in this fashion being explained to each and every patient involved, they found out online. A project which is potentially lifesaving has turned into a witch-hunt due to the way Google and the NHS has positioned the announcement.

It is an individual’s right to opt out of any study involving their personal data, but if positioned correctly it’s difficult to see why anyone would want to. The benefit of this app is to cut the amount of preventable deaths caused by kidney failure each year. Put simply, why would anyone opt out of a study which could result in technology spotting symptoms they hadn’t noticed themselves? It could increase the likelihood of the early symptoms of kidney failure being spotted soon enough to be treatable – when positioned like this, the backlash this announcement has received would almost certainly have been drastically diminished.

Those who have disputed Google’s app are also neglecting to take into account how much private data is already being shared about them. Personal data, such as financial, is often shared between organisations, for example banks and insurance companies and often without an opt-out option. It is easy to raise concerns over Google’s partnership with the NHS when the news is visibly hitting the headlines but most of the time we are turning a blind eye to where our data is going.

We should also remember Google has been assisting us with our healthcare concerns for many years. When we are feeling unwell, our first port of call in today’s digital age is often the search engine, where we enter our symptoms into the internet and digitally diagnose the illness. Many of those who previously haven’t hesitated to input their medical data are now disputing Google for replicating the process with the NHS. The boundaries are clearly blurred. If we willingly share private information to reap the rewards of easy and fast diagnosis it seems unfair to criticise Google for doing the same thing to ultimately benefit the healthcare system.

It is clear the partnership between Google and the NHS has the potential to be lifesaving over time. This can be beneficial not only in the UK, but also in third world countries where the cost of traditional healthcare means life expectancy is far lower than in the west. The research behind Google’s app is likely to advance and help those in poverty, suffering from disease and illness, who would otherwise be deprived of treatment. The positives to this technology could revolutionise universal healthcare in the future and save the lives of millions of people.

However, with the app which has been launched in the UK, it is also clear businesses acting within the healthcare industry must take into consideration how protective people are of their medical data. If given a clear explanation of what is being proposed, concentrating on the clear benefits of such projects will harbour positive results. Announcing a partnership through the media and patients who haven’t been kept updated on the proposed studies will cause them to view it as data theft – something which could potentially stop innovation before projects even begin.

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